Significance of the May 1948 Election
As the American founding fathers understood, establishing a democratic society is easier said than done. In 1776, the United States fought a war for independence from Great Britain. Through great struggle, the victorious colonists eventually shook off British rule and established a representative democracy. While vastly imperfect, their efforts became a lasting model for people around the world.
By 1948, many in Korea yearned for American-style democracy. They had just been freed in 1945 from thirty-five years of Japan’s atrocious colonial control, and envisioned a modern Korea that could realize the fruits and freedoms of capitalism.
At the time, the Korean economy was in tatters. Much of the country lay in ruin. Many Koreans looked to the world’s lone superpower for ideas, guidance and aid. Some had developed a fondness for the United States ever since 1945 when American occupation began on the southern part of the Korean Peninsula. Others, however, feared that if the United States continued to shape postwar Korea, the nation could never be truly free or independent from foreign nations. They worried that the United States was more concerned with preventing the spread of communism across Asia than bringing democracy to Korea. Would Korea become just a pawn in the Cold War that was sweeping the globe?
In 1947, President Truman decided to end the American occupation of Korea below the 38th parallel. So that it didn’t look like the United States was abandoning the country, Truman asked the United Nations to call for a new, unified and independent Korea. Elections would be held, a government would be set up and, after many years of occupation, Korea would become independent once more. Koreans would elect an assembly of representatives, which would write and ratify a new constitution.
However, the Soviet Union, which controlled the northern half of the country, would not accept the UN’s terms. The Soviets and many Koreans had very different visions for the country’s future. Faced with such resistance, the UN decided to proceed with elections only in the south. The UN and the United States threw their support to the strong anti-communist Syngman Rhee.
Rhee supported many of the same ideas that most Americans supported, including free market capitalism, independence from foreign control and a strong federal government. He had lived in the United States for many years, spoke fluent English, and could therefore communicate with western officials. However, the choice of Rhee angered many Koreans who saw him as merely another puppet of a foreign government. Others understood that if Rhee rose to power, it might become very difficult for the country’s northern part and southern part to ever reunite. It might also further inflame tensions with the Soviet Union, which understandably viewed the anti-communist Rhee as an enemy.
Elections for posts in the Constitutional Assembly occurred on May 10, 1948. Many of Rhee’s supporters, including some police and right-wing youth groups, patrolled towns and villages, threatening his political opponents with violence: “Cases of police or youth groups beating, threatening, robbing, blackmailing, and removing the ration cards of those who would not register [to vote] were reported…”
On the morning of May 10, the polls opened on time. Community groups made sure that everything went smoothly. They searched voters for weapons and massed reserve forces in the streets and buildings surrounding the polling places just in case any violence broke out. In groups of two or three, voters were allowed inside to submit their ballots.
At sunset, it was clear that most of the voting had gone smoothly. Though anti-occupation violence had roiled southern Korea in the year leading up to the election, only forty out of 13,000 polling places were attacked, and less than forty people were killed. Polls closed as the sky darkened, then ballots were collected and sent to be tallied at a central location.
American reporters and other government officials celebrated the elections as a “triumph for democratic methods and… a valid expression of the Korean people’s will.” However, the results were not as clear. Voter turnout was incredibly high, which indicated that many Koreans had faith in the democratic process. Out of 200 available assembly seats, Rhee’s supporters gained 55. Independents took roughly 80. Conservative pro-Americans gained 29, the right-wing Daedong Youth Corps took 12 and the National Youth Corps took 6. Though independents gained the majority of votes, they were divided amongst themselves and couldn’t form a political consensus.
Two months after the new assembly was elected, it ratified a constitution modeled partly on the American constitution, but that also gave significant power to Korea’s leader. It was ratified on July 17, 1948. The assembly then elected Syngman Rhee president on July 20. One month later, the Republic of Korea was born, and Rhee sworn in as its first president. Though these developments seemed bright for many below the 38th parallel, storm clouds were gathering on the horizon.